|When The World Breaks Your Heart|
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( Available to ship on or about 08/28/14. )
From the publisher: When United Airlines Flight 232 crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, 113 people died while 184 survived. Clapper, a National Guard chaplain, ministered to the survivors at the scene, to the families of those who died and later to others in the community, and to the National Guard Unit who assisted in the rescue. Using stories from this experience, Clapper offers hope for living with tragedies that inevitably come to us all and helps us see God's presence in the midst of these tragedies. 112 pages, 6" x 7 1/2", paper.
On that hot July afternoon when United Airlines
Flight 232 crashed, my family and I were driving
into Sioux City from our home in Le Mars to see
the movie Peter Pan. A nostalgic reverie about the television
movie Peter Pan, with Mary Martin flying around
the stage on wires we could see but chose to ignore, consumed
me. The song "I Can Fly" was certainly a kind of
theme song for youth, a celebration of the unfettered
imagination and unlimited possibilities of childhood.
As we pulled into the Southern Hills Mall, I noticed a
plane flying low heading for the nearby airport. Just as we
pulled into a space in the mall parking lot, we saw a thick
line of black smoke rise from the direction of the airport.
As my family got out of the car, I sat in the car, put the
key back in the ignition, and turned on the radio, awaiting
word in case the worst imaginable thing had actually
happened. Immediately the radio announcer said there
was an unconfirmed report of a plane crash at the Sioux
As soon as I heard that, I felt a crushing sensation in
my chest. It was as though that news report suddenly
squeezed out of me the plans I had made for that afternoonand
for the rest of my life. Instead of celebrating
a flight of imagination in a cool theater, I would face a
blunt reality on a hot runway. Instead of relishing the limitless
possibilities of youth, I would have to deal with the
limited options that tragedy presents to us.
I started the car, told my family to get back in, and we
drove the few minutes distance to the airport. Even with
that short time between the crash and my arrival, already
a long string of cars lined the shoulder of the interstate,
the drivers curious to watch what was happening at the
airport. When I got to the airport exit, a state trooper was
waving everyone on, not allowing anyone to exit. I pulled
over and showed him my identification indicating that I
was a member of the Air National Guard. I told the officer,
"I am a chaplain and need to be at the crash scene." He
said, "Mister, I don't care. No one is getting off here." I
pulled off about a hundred feet past the exit from 1-29
and got out. I told my wife, Jody, that I would somehow
get my own ride back home. As she drove off with our
two daughters, I started running toward the entrance to
After my initial ministry with the injured and those still
trapped in the wreckagewhich I will speak more about
laterI turned my attention to the uninjured survivors.
Rescue workers carried these people from the runway to
the headquarters building on our Air Guard base so that
they would not clog up the hospitals and possibly prevent
care from being given to the more seriously hurt. When I
got to the headquarters building, survivors filled the dining
hall. People sat everywhere, some on chairs, some on
blankets. As I started circulating among the survivors, a
worker directed me to two small children.
These two children, a brother and sister no more than
six or eight years of age, had been traveling with their
mother in the plane. Their mother now lay dead on the
runway. The little girl, Rachel, and her brother, Peter
(not their real names), sat quietly without emotionno
crying, no hysteria. They seemed subdued. I sat down to
talk to them, and Rachel perked up a little when I noticed
the teddy bear earring in one of her ears, and she gladly
showed me both, obviously proud of these special gifts. I
asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?" They said,
"No." Running out of all other alternatives, I asked if they
needed to go to the bathroom and Peter said "Yes." I took
him down the hall to the men's room. After relieving ourselves,
we washed our hands in the same sink. I noticed
that I had some blood on my hands, and it went down
the drain with the dirt from Peter's hands. We went back
to the dining hall, and Peter rejoined his sister on the floor,
in silence. Their shocked, silent numbness will forever be
for me a symbol of our human response to mystery.
The Reality of Mystery
The popular books and movies that go by the name
"mystery" do not best exemplify true mystery. These
"mysteries" are more like puzzles that will yield their
answers to the clever. A true mystery, though, in the classical
theological sense of that term, is not something that
the clever person will solve before the dullard. A true
mystery is one that will not yield to any explanation.
There are some questions that will never receive satisfying
answers. Such mysteries bring us to our knees, literally
and spiritually. One of the reasons the classical understanding
of mystery has become clouded is that there are
many persons in academiathat place where we go to
learn about lifewho do not consciously recognize the
reality of mysteries.
Academia, where I was spending my professional energy
at the time of the crash, is not a place that breeds humility.
Quite often, recipients of the Ph.D. degree see it as
granting comprehensive authority, a kind of license for
pride. It is, of course, possible for people to inhabit the
"ivory tower" with integrity if they do not forget the mud
and muck that they left behind them. All too often,
though, competitiveness for good professional positions
and the gamesmanship of applying for promotions and
grant money, squeeze true mystery out of the picture.
Academics tend to approach any subject as a problem that
will yield its solution to just the right scholar armed with
the proper credentials, a sabbatical, and research funding.
But whether or not academia wants to recognize it, all
of humanity is in fact thrust into the middle of huge mysteries,
and the mystery of tragedy is perhaps the deepest
of them all. Tragedy comes into our lives in many ways,
such as the death of a loved one, crippling and terminal
diseases, rape, abuse, floods, hurricanes, fires, earthquakes,
auto accidents, or plane crashes. The outward circumstances
of tragedy can be widely different. All
tragedies, however, have at least one thing in common.
This element shared by all tragedies is a strong sense that
such an event should not have happened.
In a tragedy, we think that somehow, somewhere,
something went wrong, a mistake has been made.
Whether it is on a microscopic level (as in cancer), a
mechanical level (such as when a failing part causes a
crash), a willful, human level (when criminal acts are
deliberately undertaken), or on a cosmic level (such as
when people are killed by a tornado), something has gone
terribly wrong. If we call something a tragedy, we think it
should not have happened.
When we finally confront the baffling depth and
shocking darkness of true mystery, whether our initial
reaction is wildly emotional or not, there is a part of all of
us that goes numb, a part of us that stares into the abyss
and comes away with pupils fixed and dilated. I saw this
in the faces of Rachel and Peter, sitting alone among
strangers and in the strong absence of their mother.
Stunned. Silent. Covered from head to toe with a body
stocking of thick emotional goose down, submerged up
to the mouth in a vat of thick oil, able to breathe, but not
True mystery shatters the illusion that we have total
control over our lives. Things are not as we would have
them be and there is no changing that. When we are in
the midst of mystery, our mouths are stopped. We have to
retreat to the childlike impotence that we were born into.
We can behold, but we cannot comprehend.
The encounter with true mystery is not so much a new
or radically intense kind of "experience" or "feeling": it is
more a lack of feeling or numbness. It is a kind of electroshock
therapy where all of the previous signals transmitted
by the brain through the nervous system become
temporarily jumbled into meaningless static. To try to
describe the static is useless, for what has happened is a
disruption of the very signal-making process that is necessary
to describe anything. All that you are aware of is
Such numbness does not leave easily. Some of it, perhaps,
never goes away. After we find ourselves in a mystery,
a part of us will always remember that unmistakable
feeling of having a window open in our house that we
cannot close, no matter how hard we try. For most of us at
least, though, we do not remain forever in that stage of
numbness. We start "coming to" and begin the frustrating
but necessary task of finding our way around in the mystery
that has engulfed us.
The Mystery of Tragedy
The particular mystery that those recovering from the
plane crash had to deal with is the mystery of tragic death.
Why did Rachel and Peter's mother die while they survived?
The question of why the plane crashed was not a
mystery, but merely a problem to be solved by the
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and other agencies.
In fact, the answer was quite clear: an engine part
disintegrated and severed all of the plane's hydraulic lines.
Problem solved. But now the real mystery only looms
larger: Why must we live in a world where such things can
happen? Why do we live in a world where cancer takes the
lives of children? Why do we live in a world where the
high school dropout gets drunk and ends up crashing
into and killing the class valedictorian? Why does a loving
God allow such a world to be?
Why? The FAA, the whole government, even the
pooled insight of religious professionals, no one can give
an answer that takes away the pain. This is mystery, true
mystery. There can be no solutions to mystery, only different
ways of dealing with it. After the stunned silenceor
after failing to fill up the infinite void of silence with
hysteriawe begin to see something. We start to see that
we at least have choices about how we describe these mysteries
and how we respond to them. Life is, in fact, really
a matter in which we "choose our mystery."
Choose your Mystery
When mystery is discussed, some will scoff and turn
away. These people, who often think of themselves as
"hard-headed realists," avoid religion because religion
openly acknowledgesand even proclaimsmysteries,
mysteries such as the mystery of the incarnation of God
in Christ, the mystery of our salvation purchased by Jesus
on the cross, and the mystery of evil. They prefer life
"straight," without any "nonsense" about mystery.
The problem with such folks is that they will not
acknowledge the mysteries that they themselves live in. A
completely secularized person might think that real "honest"
life is nothing but seeking pleasure and avoiding pain,
but they have often never considered the shape of the
mystery of their own reality as they themselves describe
it. For instance, "Why is pleasure so fleeting and pain so
common? Why are some more able than others to
achieve safety, satisfaction, and comfort? If the goal of
life is to have a big weekend, why must we slog through
the challenges of the work week first?" Since we cannot
avoid all mystery, these questions lead to the reality of
mystery. They lead us to two bottom-line questions of
life: Which mystery will I call my own? How will I deal
When we deal with the mystery of evil, suffering, and
tragedy, there are three classic options which offer themselves
to us. One option, the one taken by many Eastern
religions, is to deny the ultimate reality of suffering, to say
that it is an illusion. Most Westerners do not pay much
regard to this option. The second option, sometimes
cloaked under the name "existentialism," looks at tragedy
and says "that is all life is." Those who choose this option
adopt either a stoical attitude of courageously facing the
apparent meaninglessness of life or else throw themselves
into an attempt to forget their plight through work, substance
addiction, or perhaps suicide. They have decided
that either malevolent or totally indifferent forces guide
life. The third option is that seen in the classical Christian
understanding of life.
Christian Responses to Tragedy
The believer, formed in the biblical faith, also experiencesand
ownsthe numbness and pain of the mystery
as well. To pretend otherwise, to deny it, as some
misguided Christians do, is nothing but sad folly, and
such repression can lead to problems. But the believer,
after acknowledging and naming this mystery, is lovingly
and patiently called back to trusting that this mystery
called lifewith all of its emotional blind alleys and spiritual
dead endsis finally a gift, and that the gift is
The Christian who has read and understood the book
of Job, the Christian who has read the passion narratives
of Christ and has understood and embodied them, will
know that the faithful one is no stranger to mystery, and
specifically to the mystery of tragedy. Tragedy is, in fact,
a true mystery only for those who have a faith that creation
does somehow make sense, those who have a faith in
a higher being, those who believe in God.
If you start with the premise that we are all random
atoms colliding with each other, then why should anything
make any sense? Why should planes not crash, families
be torn apart, or children die of cancer? If that were
the case, then why should individual life be nothing but
mindless self-centeredness and self-absorbed pleasure-seeking,
where the stomach and the groin are the true
masters? As we unfortunately can see in our culture, many
have (consciously or not) opted for this view of life.
Jesus Christ, on the other hand, stood in the midst
of the mystery of human life and death and neither
repressed this mystery nor pretended to answer it. As seen
in Luke 13, where Jesus is asked to "explain" a tragedy,
he responds by asking, "Were those who had the temple
of Siloam fall on them any worse than anyone else?" He
dismisses such hateful speculation about the victims of
tragedies by simply saying, "No," and then goes on to call
for repentance among all those who hear him. Jesus
Christ acknowledged the reality of tragedy and went on
with life. Tragedy neither drove him to despair nor did it
elicit a long "explanation." Jesus simply lived the mystery
of a grace-filled loving life in the midst of tragedy and
called his followers to do the same.
Some Christians are not comfortable with this evil-as-mystery
approach and immediately assert that while evil is
a mystery to us, it is not a mystery to God. This undoubtedly
is true, but it is also true that such a statement does
nothing to take away the stinging fact that it is a mystery
to us! A related strategy for some Christians is to explain
evil by the story of the Fall in Genesis. But the Genesis
story, like Jesus' parrying of the question about those
who died in Siloam, simply acknowledges the reality of
evil. The story does not explain it. After all, why was there
a snake in the garden of Eden in the first place? The
Genesis account does not explain this. It eloquently asserts
that there are elements of creation that can inhibit our
flourishing as human beings. So we are stuck with a mystery,
but we are still free to choose how to interpret this
The fact that we have the freedom to choose how to
interpret our mysteries is part of the larger mystery itself.
The Christian story, however, tells us that we are not left
alone with the choice. God's grace comes to us and whispers
words of direction. We can hear them if, as the Bible
says, we have "ears to hear." Sooner or later, we are beckoned
out of our numbness. In my work after the plane
crash I was reminded that for Christians, it is gratitude
and joy that often do the beckoning.
The Mystery of Death
Meets the Mystery of Life
In the building where the survivors were taken after
the plane crash, two of the plane's flight attendants stood
in the hallway. I began speaking to one named Susan who
still had on her blood-spattered service apron. As we
spoke, she started crying and we hugged. I led her into an
office down the hall where we sat opposite each other and
cried together. After we sat for a while in tears, I asked her
if she would like to call someone.
At this point, the telephone lines were not yet in use
(though shortly they would be tied up by the press seeking
information). I got an outside line, and Susan said
that she wanted to try to call her father. She asked me to
dial. As she told me the numbers, I punched each one,
and within one ring an anxious male voice answered the
phone. Even though he just said "Hello," concern and
worry were clearly evident in his voice. I said, "Is this Mr.
White?" He said "Yes." I said, "There is someone here
who wants to speak to you," and I handed the phone to
She took the phone, and I was standing next to her
when she spoke the words, "Dad? ... I'm alive!"
The tears came again for Susan, for me, and for her
father. This time, however, somehow the tears were transmuted,
transposed into a different key compared to the
tears we cried together before the telephone call. Now
the tears we were crying were not just the tears of emptiness,
shock, grief, and disbelief. Now the tears had an element,
a small but unmistakable element, of joy.
"Dad? ... I'm alive!"
We were standing in the midst of death, but were now
looking out at life. Susan did not choose to say anything
other than that most basic affirmation that a living person
could make"I'm alive!"but the words had unspeakable
power. I am alive in the midst of death. Breath has
been breathed into me.
Susan did not say "I'm alive!" She was not making a
comparative statement; she was not making a judgment
about the superiority of one person over another. Nor was
it a statement of pride, of "look at me, I made it and others
didn't." Susan said "I'm alive!" It was the simple and naked
utterance that life makesthat fully awake, fully aware life
must make. "I'm alive."
The element of joy in that cry from the heart was
the element of joy that is inherent in life. This joy proclaims
that life is a gift. She spoke the words to one
who in a human sense helped give her this gift of life,
In one sense the words are silly and can be easily
mockedif she were speaking on the phone, of course
she would be alive. Who in their right mind would ever
say such a thing? Yet, truer words, more profound words,
more important words, have never been spoken. She was
in her right mind, and her mind perceived, and her heart
perceived, and her lips spoke of that ultimate mystery.
Susan's naming of this truth, through tears of gratitude,
in the midst of the broken mystery of life, was as
genuine an act of worship as I have ever witnessed.
Through those words she invoked the awe-filled presence
of God which turned that office into a holy place. The
holiness that filled the office was more intense than that
invoked by the most beautiful landscape or the most
majestic cathedral. It was, in fact, filled with the holiness
of Eden. "I'm alive."
This joy that Susan named, the grateful joy that celebrates
the sheer fact of lifethe joy that leads to worshipmust
be put into dialogue with the numbness of
Rachel and Peter. In due time, this joy must confront not
only the numbness of mystery, but all of the very real
anger, sorrow, grief and broken-heartedness of life. Only
when this very real joy is put together with the very real
sorrow can the Christian view of the mystery of life be
When we do not deny either of these two sides of our
mysterious reality, then we can, like Job before us, look
straight into the deepest mysteries of life and confess that
there are "things too wonderful for me to know" (Job
42:3, NIV). Knowing that life is supposed to be a mystery,
and that it is not just our personal intellectual or spiritual
shortcomings that make it seem so, can help revive us and
equip us for the next installment of the mystery. When we
realize that life is both a mystery and a gift, then we can
once again push our boat back into the swift currents of
lived experience with hope. The route may be uncharted,
but with God's divine wind in our sails, we can trust
enough to take the rudder that is offered.
Questions for Reflection and Meditation
If the idea of living in the midst of mysteries seems foreign
to you, consider some of the central stories of the
Bible. Read the stories of the first few chapters of
Genesis (both the Creation and Fall), the story of Job,
and the Passion accounts of Jesus. Reflect on how each
of these describes mystery far more than they explain
mystery. How can these stories that describe great mysteries
shape our own response to mystery?
Consider whether it is easier in your own life to live in
a pretense of comfort and certainty rather than to face
the reality of mystery. How can naming the truth about
the reality of mystery in our lives be a comforting
resource for facing tragedy? How can putting an end to
denial free our energies for more creative use?
How can you name the reality of mystery in your own
life? Can you see it manifesting itself both in things that
you fear and things that you love?
If you are facing the mystery of tragedy, try to put the
tragedy into your own words. What particularly is tragic?
What happened that you sense should not have happened?
Honestly name your responses to the tragedy.
These might include fear, grief, sorrow, anger, and
other unpleasant emotions. While these reactions can
be extremely troubling, they are normal responses to
tragedy, even for a Christian. Try to place these emotions
in a larger context of the mystery of life.
Consciously choose and name the mystery that you
want to define your life.
How does the mystery of life-as-a-gift interact with the
mystery of tragedy in your own life? Does one cancel
out the other, or is the interplay more subtle? Can you
see the possibility of holding on to both mysteries as a
dramatic and life-giving challenge, or must one or the
other finally prevail?